By their very geography, Russia, the Baltics and Balkans have been at a cultural crossroads since the emergence of the first civilizations. Valuable goods from spices and amber to silver and gold have been traded here, cultural traditions from clothing to dance have been shared, religions from Eastern Orthodox to Judaism have been practiced. It all converged and transformed here. Which is why these far reaches of Europe and Russia are among the most enlightening places to explore in the world. Although each country is very different, from the massive cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia to the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Tallinn in Estonia and Riga, Latvia to the city rebuilt from the ashes, Warsaw, Poland, comforting similarities will arise when traveling to these beautiful countries. Incredible sights, underrated natural landscapes and the warm hospitality of the people endure in their own ways while old-European charm, Soviet influence and Central European attitudes are all alive and well. Gate 1 Travel gets you to all these countries in comfort and style, and our knowledgeable local guides reveal the secrets and mysteries that make this such a captivating region.
Explore our north-to-south guide to Russia, the Baltics & Balkan’s proud nations and cities on Gate 1’s itineraries.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Of course, that was at the dawn of the Cold War, when the then Soviet Union operated behind a tightly closed door. Fast forward to the present where travelers are visiting this culture-rich country in droves. Russia may still exude an enigmatic side, but we love nothing more than seeing travelers unwrap its mysteries, whether they’re exploring this fascinating country by land during our Russia escorted tours or by river during one of our leisurely and eye-opening Russian river cruises.
When most people think of Russia, the imposing red walls of Moscow’s Kremlin come to mind. Once a symbol of intimidation and control, today’s Kremlin is a sign of history and culture that invites endless exploration. Inside are the remains of a czarist heritage and an unrivalled collection of architecture and art. Cathedral Square, surrounded by a stunning trio of cathedrals, is where all the streets of the Kremlin once converged. Nearby, the Kremlin Armory reflects of the imperial days, a breathtaking collection of royal crowns, embossed carriages and the world-famous collection of royal Fabergé eggs.
The vast Red Square is the center of culture in today’s Moscow. Its most recognized landmark is St. Basil’s Cathedral, a soaring demonstration of vibrant color and architectural brilliance created by architects Ivan Barma and Postnik Yakovlev. Its nine onion domes pose a striking profile and not to mention, an excellent photo-op.
In Moscow, even shopping takes on a glamourous style at the GUM department store, a stunning mall of shops covered with a glass roof. If you prefer shopping outdoors, Arbat Street boasts boutiques and cafes where artisans display their wares and Muscovites linger over Russian tea.
Art lovers will find many opportunities to admire some of the world’s finest works while in Moscow. The State Tretyakov Gallery is home to 150,000 pieces that span several centuries while the metro stations are famously decorated in marble, mosaics, chandeliers and statues.
When Peter the Great ordered the construction of his northern city, he envisioned a gilded capital that would rival that of Europe’s cultural capitals; lined with canals, beautiful bridges and cultural institutions. St. Petersburg is all of this, and is often called Russia’s most “Western” city because of it. View the magnificent St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Bronze Horseman, Peter himself, standing out front. Admire the neoclassical Mariinsky Theater, the last of its style to be built in the city. The Yusopov Palace is shrouded in mystery. It is here that, according to some, Prince Yusopov and some co-conspirators murdered the royal faith healer Grigori Rasputin after the prince grew concerned about the influence the mystic carried with the czar and his family.
The grand centerpiece of St. Petersburg is the Winter Palace, part of the city’s massive Hermitage Museum. During her rule, Catherine the Great, known as a great admirer of the arts, acquired one of the world’s largest private collections in her palace. After her death, the city ensured that her beloved art be shared with the people by opening the doors of the Winter Palace as the Hermitage Museum in 1852. More than six million pieces are held by the museum, with only a fraction on display, including masterpieces by Michelangelo, Picasso, Rembrandt, Monet and countless others. It is truly a must visit.
To see where St. Petersburg began, visit the Peter and Paul Fortress. This was the first structure raised in the city, intended to keep intruders away as Peter built his metropolis. Today, many Russian czars are entombed here. The spectacular Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is dedicated to one of them, Alexander II. This splendid church was constructed as a shrine to him after a bomb was thrown into his carriage on this exact site. It is a stunning example of Russian Romantic Nationalist architecture and stands out for its extravagance and rich appearance.
Russian River Cruise:
A remarkable and culture-rich network of canals, lakes and rivers connect Moscow and St. Petersburg, and you can explore them during Gate 1’s Russian river cruises. These magnificent voyages explore the heart of rural Russia, calling on lesser-known towns and cities where smiling babushkas sell colorful nesting dolls, gilded onion domes peer out from behind forests and wooden architecture dots the landscape. The beauty of exploring Russia by ship is the leisurely pace you’ll experience. Unpack your bags once after you embark, then let the cultural and historic wonders come to you as you are whisked away from place to place. What’s more, you’ll travel aboard a ship that we’ve hand-selected for your comfort and enjoy the service of an attentive staff.
In Lake Ladoga, the island village of Mandrogi clings to rugged shores. Part of the Valaam archipelago, this reconstructed 18th-century traditional village mirrors simpler times when houses, or izba, were constructed from locally felled trees. Kizhi Island is an open-air museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprising more than 80 structures, including the Church of the Transfiguration, built without a single nail.
The 14th-century monastery of Kirillo-Belozersky in Goritsy was once northern Russia’s largest. Though it may appear to lie in the middle of nowhere along the Volga-Baltic Waterway, it is one of the nation’s most important and historic religious sites.
Two other cities are worth a stop along the Volga River. Yaroslavl is one of Russia’s Golden Ring cities for the role it has played in Russia’s eventful history. The 800-year-old Transfiguration of the Savior Monastery and its impressive Cathedral comprise the oldest structures in the city. Both the Church of Elijah the Prophet, with its finely wrought frescoes and icons, and the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker are both central to the city’s religious past. Uglich, also on the Volga, is most famous as a place of hiding as this is where Prince Dmitry came to escape the wrath of his father, Ivan the Terrible. Dmitry was found by Ivan’s forces and murdered on the spot where the blue-domed Church of St. Dmitry-on-Blood now stands in honor.
Estonia has long been sought after for its strategic location on the Baltic Sea. The capital of Estonia, Tallinn is a UNESCO World Heritage city and is filled with cobbled streets and 14th century churches. Tallinn was a favored post location coveted by its more powerful neighbors, starting centuries of war until the country finally achieved its independence in 1991. Layers of history can be seen at Peter the Great’s Kadriorg Palace while spectacular ruins are seen at the 15th century Bridget’s Convent rising along the banks of the Pirita River. In the Old Town district, the Toompea Castle, Gothic Town Hall and Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral further demonstrate the beauty of Tallinn.
The “Little Paris of the North” nickname refers to the capital city of Riga, Latvia due to its beauty, numerous museums and concert halls. This historic city is located on the Baltic coast and is a charming UNESCO World Heritage Site. Architectural styles such as Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical and Art Noveau can be seen displayed on buildings throughout the city. Riga Castle dates back to the 1440s while St Jacob’s Cathedral and St. Paul’s Church are some of the oldest and most valuable monuments of medieval architecture in all of the Baltic States. The Freedom Monument honors soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence and bears a symbolic female holding three stars representing the 3 regions of Latvia during the first republic.
Flat landscapes blanketed with forests and lakes greet you as you drive through Lithuania. The capital, Vilnius, boasts one of the largest historic quarters in Europe, an array of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. Vilnius Upper Castle has lorded over the scene for centuries and its adjacent Gediminas Tower is a symbol of national pride. The city boasts more than 40 historic churches and former places of worship. Among them, the Gothic St. Anne’s captivated Napoleon so much that in 1812 he exclaimed he wanted to take it home to Paris, France “in the palm of his hand”.
For many, Poland stands out as one of Europe’s most resilient nations. Its beautiful capital Warsaw, straddling the Vistula River, plainly illustrates this sentiment. The city saw dark times during World War II, as Jews were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. The city was completely destroyed by war’s end. After the war, its citizens took to rebuilding their beloved Old Town exactly as it was constructed in the 14th century. Today the restored cobbled lanes lead to Market Square where the Royal Castle and Cathedral of St. John invite travelers for exploration.
There is much more to Romania than its legendary Dracula stories. Stunning vistas at every turn, soaring Carpathian Mountains, deeply held folkloric traditions, and beautifully preserved Orthodox churches housed within medieval walled cities combine to make it one of travel’s best-kept secrets.
The nation’s capital, Bucharest, has been compared to Paris for its emerging elegance, wide boulevards, and intentional 1935 replica of the Arc de Triomphe. Neoclassical buildings and Orthodox churches dominate the cityscape of this former communist enclave. Today, museums, opera, and theater set the tone for an increasingly creative cultural center. The most imposing building of Bucharest is the Parliament Palace.
Brasov, Sibiu, and Sighisoara have been lovingly preserved and each evokes the seductive splendor of Old Romania. Transylvania is home to the legendary Dracula, Bram Stoker’s vampire inspired by the towers and turrets of Bran Castle. You will also visit castles less notorious: the 19th-century Peles Castle and the 14th-century Hunedoara. Immerse yourself in Transylvanian culture in Targu Mures, once a rural village and today a small city rich in local tradition and Timisoara, the cultural center of the West.
Perhaps it is because so few travelers visit Bulgaria that it remains one of Eastern Europe’s most authentic and untarnished nations. Its capital, Sofia, lies scenically at the foot of Vitosha Mountain and is at the geographic center of the Balkan peninsula. The city has been inhabited since 7000 BC and is rich in Roman and Thracian ruins. Remarkably, many of its Bulgarian Orthodox monasteries survived centuries of iron-fisted Ottoman rule. Today, the National Museum of History chronicles its long past while the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Church stands proudly as a neo-Byzantine symbol of the city’s enduring spiritual heart.
With rolling hills and enchanting villages, Serbia transports you back to the simpler times of the Balkans. There is much to endear you to its charms, particularly the three-kiss hello you will receive from the famously friendly locals. Along the changing landscape of the Danube River you will reach Novi Sad, a fascinating mix of Serbian and Austro-Hungarian culture and architecture. Enjoy an introductory walking tour of the city and view highlights including the Petrovaradin Citadel, or the “Gibraltar of the Danube”, that towers over the majestic river.
Skirting the Sava River, Belgrade is often thought of as the bohemian cousin to the continent’s more refined cities. It might have gotten this reputation because of the Skadarlija quarter, which has often been compared to the artistic enclave of Montmartre in Paris. Soak it all in as you browse Republic Square and the café-lined pedestrian zone of Knez Mihajlova Street. To get a glimpse into the city’s long history and architectural treasures, visit the imposing Kalemegdan Fortress, erected strategically where the Sava meets the Danube.
With its secluded location north of Greece, North Macedonia boasts a rich and enduring culture that has been shaped and sometimes tested, by its geography and its history. The nation’s capital of Skopje wears its pride with the confidence of any European cultural center. Ottoman Turks ruled here for 500 years and vestiges of their culture are everywhere, lending the city an “east-meets-west” atmosphere. Its historic centerpiece, the Kale, overlooks the city. Much of the city’s historic flavor also seeps through the stone lanes of the Turkish Bazaar, known locally as Čaršija or Old Bazaar. Home to some 30 mosques and a number of historic caravansaries, its stalls are brimming with colorful carpets, handmade crafts, carved dolls, and all the traditional makings of North Macedonia.
Ohrid is a true gem to be discovered in the Balkans due to its beauty and serene location. Discover the city, set beside a pristine lake and topped by a medieval castle, by spending some leisure time to walk along the waterfront, lay on the beach or walk to the Roman amphitheater. Take a tour of the Old City where you will discover the Monastery of St. Naum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a stop at the statue of St. Cyril and Methodius, the National Museum, Church of St. Sophia, the Roman Amphitheatre and much more. A unique boat cruise on scenic Lake Ohrid surrounds you with beautiful mountains, villages and beaches.
The beating heart and capital of Albania lies in Tirana, known for its vibrant café culture and public art scene. Here you will view the incredible Skanderberg Square, Opera House and National Historic Museum. Step back in time with a special visit to the hometown of the country’s hero Skanderberg in Kruje. The Skanderberg Museum is a seven-level building with display replicas of armor and paintings depicting the battle where Skanderberg fought off the Ottomans. Also visit the Ethnographic Museum and a stroll through the Ottoman style Bazaar where you can browse antiques, gems and handicrafts.
Thank you for joining us on our journey through Russia, the Baltics and Balkans. If you want to further immerse yourself into the rich traditions of these areas, then a Gate 1 Travel tour is an excellent way to do so. Uncover the countless wonders of Russia, the Baltics and Balkans with us and when you do so you will close each remarkable day in comfortable accommodations with delicious cuisine and all the while gaining in-depth knowledge from local guides who call these destinations home.